Sunday, May 23, 2010

Witnesses (Acts 1.1-8)

May 23, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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Today is Pentecost Sunday, the celebration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit fifty days after Easter. We are going to look at Pentecost passages in Acts this Sunday and next. Interestingly enough, I think you’ll see a strong connection between these and the three parables we studied these past three weeks about God seeking the lost and celebrating the found.

You heard the opening to the book of Acts today. It begins with an amazingly concise summary of the Gospels – the books that describe Jesus’ life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection. Acts then picks up where the Gospel of Luke left off, with Jesus answering a few pressing questions and then giving his followers their marching orders once he’s gone.

I want to walk through some of what is squeezed into those eight verses as we consider what it means to be Jesus followers some 2000 years after Pentecost.

Amazing Stuff

In only a matter of verses, Luke summarizes what has gone before (as recorded in Luke) and what is about to happen (as recorded in Acts). All of that is presented in one of the most concise summaries of Jesus’ ministry and resurrection in scripture. Luke references four distinct components of Jesus’ story:

1) Jesus’ ministry as recorded in the Gospel of Luke – what he did and taught (v. 1)
2) Jesus suffering and resurrection (v. 3)
3) Specific teaching about the Kingdom of God (v. 3)
4) The promise of baptism with the Holy Spirit, only a few days away (vv. 4-5)

If you ever are looking for a primer on what you need to know about Jesus, that’s a great outline. Learn about his life and ministry. Study his death and resurrection. And don’t miss the teaching about the Kingdom of God, which runs throughout his many lessons and parables. And then don’t stop; ask, “What’s next?” The book of Acts answers that question with the arrival of the Holy Spirit and the empowering of Jesus’ followers for mission.

Now here’s one interesting part to me. The disciples had lived through all that. They had heard the parables, seen the suffering and death, and witnessed the resurrection. They had shared in the popular expectation of an earthly kingdom ushered in by the expected Messiah, and heard Jesus reorient them toward a spiritual Kingdom time and time again. And now after weeks of “convincing proofs” that he was risen and he was who he said he was, he gathers his followers in Jerusalem and tells them to get ready for what is coming next.

And they, apparently, still have a few pressing questions.

Pressing Questions

The insistence of the disciples in asking the next question would be laughable if I weren’t convinced that I would have been right there asking it with them. After all the teaching and correction and proof and power, they still have to ask it: “Lord, NOW are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Now you’re going to wipe out the Romans, right? You obviously have the power – their torture and soldiers couldn’t keep you down. Now you’re going to bring it, right?

There are times as a parent when I impart truly important information. It’s not just what time we are leaving or what needs to be eaten before dessert, but good, solid life-lessons. And then the next thing I hear is whether we’ll be done talking in time for the favorite TV show, or “Can I call my friend now?” Adults, have you ever been there?

But grown-ups, we’re not off the hook. We sit through Bible study, sermons, saying our prayers, and doing 20 other things that “get us right with God” and then jump right to, “Now here’s what I want, God.” There’s this disconnect between the message and our focus. Great sermon, preacher; but here’s what I want to know. Hmm – that Great Commission: “Good one, Lord; but what about answering that prayer request?”

Jesus has answered this one before and is in the middle of telling them about the fulfillment of a thousand year old prophecy, and they have pressing questions.

This is not the main point of this sermon, but I am struck – and convicted – by the disciples’ question that I still have much to learn about “Thy will be done” and putting God’s will ahead of my own.

Jesus’ answer is short and deep; and then he moves on. His answer is verse 7, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority…” What in the world is an epoch? This is one of those cases where the Message translation nails it: “It is not for you to know the times or timing of the Father’s will…” There are two Greek words for time: chronos and kairos. And each is used here. We don’t get to know the day and time the end will come. That’s chronos – clock time. And we don’t get to know the timing, that is, kairos – God’s time. That’s what an epoch is, by the way, an era or age or chapter in God’s story. We just don’t use that word much. What Jesus is saying is that it’s God’s business and we would do better to listen to what God IS saying then speculate about what God is not revealing. This is also not the main point of this sermon, but I think this has profound implications for those who become overly pre-occupied with end-times matters. Jesus is very clear in this passage that he would reorient us towards a present mission. And that main point is what I want to turn to now, along with the disciples.

Marching Orders: What and Where

Jesus spells out the impending mission or marching orders for his followers in once sentence in verse 8. I want to look at it in two parts, first looking at WHAT that mission will be, then at WHERE the mission will take place.

Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses…” In a nutshell, here’s what Jesus said we should be focused on: OUR witness to him, fueled by HIS power. The Holy Spirit that Jesus promised (as did God long before that) would be poured out on those who trusted in Him, and that Spirit would energize, compel, protect, embolden, catalyze, and bless the words and actions of human witnesses. But what is it that we have witnessed. Think about a witness in a courtroom. The questions are, “What have you seen? What have you heard? What do you know?”

And here’s where all this hangs together. The content of the Christian witness has already been described in the opening verses of Acts. Luke has summarized the Christian witness for us already in verses 1-5. That is what is referenced by “witnesses” in verse 8. We are witnesses to those four things I mentioned earlier – the amazing stuff: what Jesus did and taught, his suffering and resurrection, his specific teaching about the Kingdom of God, and the promise and reality of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life (and sign of the promised Kingdom of God). That’s the basic story we need to have under our belt, applied and experienced and explained through the filter of our own lives. Said even more simply, we need to know God’s story in Christ, as witnessed through our own story and experience.

Jesus goes on to describe the scope of this mission – the WHERE of it: “…in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (v. 8). We have talked about this phrase before. In fact, it underlies the mission of this church as we attempt to be a faithful witness to Jesus Christ within our walls, then in our near neighborhood, then in the larger community, and in the world. The Book of Acts chronicles this mission as it follows that very pattern, expanding outward from those nearby to those far away. So also we are to carry our Christian witness from this place of worship and teaching and training into our homes, schools, neighborhoods, community, and world.

One of the things we’ve realized is that it is not sufficient to say “take it to the neighborhood.” We have to be specific. So, we’ve named buildings and groups and neighbors and made specific gestures to obey this mission. We’ve also latched onto a line from the parable of the talents, in which the master says to the faithful steward, “You have been faithful in small things; I will give you responsibility for larger things.” We have named that principle, recognizing that there are dangers of mis-using it two directions: we might neglect larger mission in the community and world or we might use it as a kind of prosperity gospel thinking God “owes us” growth and blessing for our hard work. Those misapplications notwithstanding, I believe a careful cultivation of our nearby mission fields is consistent with Jesus’ teaching in Acts 1, that our witness expands outward in concentric circles.

One example is our drama ministry. It began as short skits in worship. It grew into full-length in-house productions. We then began holding open auditions in the neighborhood and seeking ways to invite more neighbors to see the plays. It appears that God may be opening doors to take the future plays outside the walls of the church. That seems like a faithful, Spirit-led pattern of growth.

For years we have studied scripture and evangelism. We have been growing in ways to share faith in our neighborhoods and workplace, among peers and colleagues. Several study, prayer, and fellowship groups have sprung up from the congregation, yet outside the church walls in recent years. That seems like a faithful, Spirit-led pattern of growth.

In a sentence, be faithful with what God has given you; be attentive to where God would lead you.

Our Mission

Our mission from Acts 1 applies to each individual Christian, from the youngest to the oldest; and it applies to the congregation as one local collection of believers in this time and location:

Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ has empowered and called on his followers to give witness to him in every area of their life, even stretching beyond those arenas to places to which God would lead us.

Luke has reminded us in short form of God’s story in Christ. And you are Christ’s witnesses in the world.

What is your story? With whom will you share God’s story and your own? Amen.

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